COVID-19 in 2020 showed science and society in action

Often at this time of year, we might have a list of the top science stories of the year, but this season COVID-19 took over many different areas of science as we all scrambled to face a new reality.

While the first private rocket flight to the International Space Station, Japan’s sample return mission from an asteroid and China’s sample return mission from the moon briefly grabbed headlines, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that rallied scientists around the world to work together to fight the emerging disease.

As the public watched, scientists from many disciplines worked tirelessly to identify the virus, figure out how it works, how it spreads and come up with a vaccine, all in a remarkably short time. 

Here’s a look back at how it all unfolded. 

Global ordeal began last New Year’s Eve

Beginning on December 31, 2019, when Chinese health care workers first announced to the World Health Organization (WHO) that a cluster of pneumonia cases had emerged in Wuhan, China, geneticists went to work to identify the cause.

Less then a week later, gene sequencing revealed the culprit as a novel coronavirus, related to the 2002-03 SARS outbreak that had ravaged hospitals and taken lives in China and North America. This information was quickly shared with the WHO. 

On January 10, the Chinese scientists released the genetic blueprint of the virus to the world. Laboratories in many countries, including Canada, collaborated to identify the structure of the virus, how it infects the lungs and can lead to death.

By the end of January, it was determined that the virus can spread through the air before symptoms show, which makes it very mobile. With Wuhan under lockdown, new cases are reported in 21 countries, including Japan, Thailand, the United States, several European countries and Canada. 

February saw outbreaks on cruise ships and continued to spread to other countries. The disease resulting from an infection with novel coronavirus officially became COVID-19. And near the end of that month is when Canadians first became acquainted with the term “social distancing.” 

In March, the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic, which led to lockdowns in many countries around the world, including Canada.

A healthcare worker looks out of a window of Santa Cabrini Hospital in Montreal on May 29. (Christinne Muschi / REUTERS)

Flattening the curve

Another branch of science, epidemiology stepped in to predict the spread of the virus through the population over time and came up with bell-shaped curves that we were all urged to “flatten.” Those same scientists warned that there would likely be a second wave later on, which proved to be true.

Meanwhile, immunologists were working hard to design vaccines that would alert our immune systems to infection and provide protection.

There were different approaches to the vaccine, but the scientists were under pressure to develop them quickly as case numbers and deaths continued to rise, while lockdowns devastated the economy and erased jobs, forcing governments to spend billions on relief.

Vaccines normally take time to develop because they need to be tested thoroughly first to make sure they are not only effective, but that they provide lasting protection with no side effects. Now, vaccines have been rolled out, and there’s good evidence that they’ll will be both safe and effective. But we don’t konw if their protection will last for months, years or decades.

Now there is the news that even with the immunity provided by the vaccine, we will still have to wear masks for a time because the virus may not be eliminated by vaccines that work well to keep us from getting sick.  In other words, vaccinated people might be healthy, but could still carry the virus.

Global human experiment

The year 2020 has been a global human experiment where we have adapted our cultures to accept new behaviours such as social distancing — replacing hand shakes with elbow bumps, wearing protective equipment and following arrows in the aisles of grocery stores.

The environment saw a short-term improvement during the pandemic as skies cleared over heavily polluted cities such as Beijing and Seoul due to fewer vehicles on the roads.

Even animal behaviour in parks and reserves changed due to a lack of tourists and hunters.

It has been an amazing year, a demonstration of the power of good science, from health care to genetics, virology, epidemiology, immunology, medicine as well as people’s ability to adapt to a clear and present threat. 

A big thank you goes out to all the scientists who worked behind the scenes and provided us with the information we needed. It provides a glimmer of hope that lessons we learned from this pandemic will give us the tools to adapt and change our behaviours again when future threats come along. 

Have a happy and safe holiday everyone. 

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